Michael Cunningham's fifth novel, Specimen Days, narrates three interrelated stories, set in New York City in the historical past, near-present, and imagined future, focused on three different characters — a physically deformed boy, a bereaved woman, and a man who fate influences their actions.
... reads like a clunky and precious literary exercise — a creative writing class assignment that intermittently reveals glimpses of the author's storytelling talents, but too often obscures those gifts with self-important and ham-handed narrative pyrotechnics ...three novellas that make up Specimen Days each play with a different literary genre — the ghost story, the detective story, the sci-fi thriller — and each takes place (at least in part) in New York City ... sympathetic characters who are both brought together and estranged from one another by their sense of being outsiders ...completely buried beneath a heavy lacquer of self-conscious writerly effects. Chief among these superfluous devices is the author's clumsy invocation of Walt Whitman in all three stories ...in the end [the novellas] amount to nothing but gratuitous and pretentious blather.
It would be possible to read Specimen Days as a novel orchestrated by moments such as these, with Whitman as the unconscious maestro of Cunningham’s earlier books. With its three movements, it repeats the structure of The Hours... We stay more or less in the same place, but we travel much further back and forwards in time, from the industrial revolution, to post-9/11, to a moment pitched 150 years into the future when New York is peopled by interstellar visitors and by clones ...Cunningham has made his novel a barometer or touchstone of this ambiguity in the poet’s work ... Cunningham’s clone narrative is as fast-paced as Ishiguro’s is deliberate and slow. His simulos know exactly who and what they are, and they are running away from their fate. This makes Specimen Days the far more optimistic book ...is Cunningham’s most ambitious novel and, for me, his finest.
...the presiding spirit of Specimen Days — Cunningham's first novel since The Hours, seven years ago, which was much honored and widely read — is that of our original and greatest native yawper, Walt Whitman ... Whitman isn't a major character in Specimen Days, as Woolf was in the earlier novel, but Cunningham clearly means him to be present in every word, every line of the book, in the sense the poet intended when he wrote...Walt Whitman isn't there in Specimen Days, not in the organic, dirt-and-grass way he believed in. Cunningham, try as he might, can't keep his attention on what's beneath his feet for long enough; he's a stargazer by nature ...a very bad book and a very brave one ...Cunningham gamely tries his hand at lowly genres, he can't hide his fundamental lack of sympathy (or familiarity) with them.